Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Day at the Museum

StraightMan and I are visiting my family in northern NJ. We had parked Beanie and Bubbie with my parents for a few days while we attending the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association in New Orleans.

I know: How lucky are we?!

When we arrived at my parents’ home on Sunday evening, the kids were waiting for us. We have not parted company from them since. I know: How lucky are we.

StraightMan and I, not wanting to wear out our (or especially our kids’) welcome, whisked our family of four into the city for a morning at the American Museum of Natural History. My sister, who lives and works in the city, joined us.

“It’s kind of funny to go to the Museum of Natural History with two anthropologists and their kids,” she remarked to me.

To which I might have said: It’s kind of funny for two anthropologists to go to the AMNH with their kids who have watched “Night at the Museum.” When I say “funny,” I mean not funny-haha, but funny-strange. Or more like funny-mortifying.

“Gum-Gum,” Bubbie declares, his treble pitch bouncing around the august halls of the museum. “I want to see Gum-Gum.”

“Is it Gum-Gum,” Beanie asks at similar volume, then lowers her voice, “or is it Dum-Dum?” She lowers her voice because “Dum-Dum” is like saying “stupid,” which in our family, we have tried to teach our children that we do not use this word to describe people. So, Beanie, being a rather kind kid (also, a goody-goody), feels a bit wary about saying “Dum-Dum.” Especially in front of her parents.

We found Dum-Dum in the Hall of Pacific Peoples. Bubbie had a 10-minute conversation with him. No exaggeration.

It turns out that a lot of kids in the ages 3 and up set have seen the movie - and are taking their parents on a "Night at the Museum" tour.

Other highlights from our “Night at the Museum” tour: Saying hello to Theodore Roosevelt, who is neither made of wax nor of Robin Williams, as in the movie. Seeing the dinosaur that in the movie played fetch in the atrium. Looking for the lions among the African mammals.

However, we did not find Sacajawea or dioramas of the Roman Empire and Manifest Destiny that features miniature likenesses of Owen Wilson – or as Bubbie put it, “little people who talk.”

Beanie, who has a keen interest in non-human primates, was looking for Dexter, the capuchin monkey in the movie who caused such havoc for Ben Stiller.

While viewing the stuffed chimpanzees and gorillas, Beanie asked: “Are they real?” So, I explained that back when the museum had been founded, it had been thought acceptable to hunt “exotic” animals, including monkeys and apes. As we walked through the Hall of Primates, Beanie remarked: “It makes me sad to see that the gorillas had to be dead to be in the museum.”


This brings me to the unease that I feel - and that anthropologists today generally feel - about a place like the American Museum of Natural History. For me, the museum is arguably more interesting as an example of the history of science than as a source of "science" itself. It is a place full of relics, but it is itself also a relic of practices and ideas of science in the past.

Yet, if the number of school buses pulling off Central Park West is any indication, the American Museum of Natural History is as popular a destination as ever as a source of "science" for the public. However, it also makes me wonder (or worry) about the state of science education today.

On the one hand, the museum can inspire in kids on a school field trip an interest in anthropology, paleontology, and astronomy. On other hand, how do parents and teachers follow up on a kid's interest, once sparked?

There seems to me a widening gap between what the specialists study (and discuss among themselves in venues like the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association) and what the public learns.

It is not necessarily that the museum provides incorrect information, but I think it is incomplete.

In order for exhibits like the Hall of African Mammals or the Hall of Primates to make sense, there ought to be more contextualization offered: The museum might offer commentary on the museum itself. Like the fact that the "exotic" animals were hunted, stuffed, and donated to the museum. Explaining this past makes the exhibit more, not less valid as an instrument for science education.

Also, I think anthropologists have a stake in a Day at the Museum: Franz Boas, regarded as the "father" of American anthropology, and Margaret Mead, his student and the most famous anthropologist in her time, both served as curators at the museum, so it is a significant site in the production of anthropological knowledge. In fact, there is a rather interesting exhibit on Margaret Mead's career at AMNH in the Hall of Pacific Peoples. It is rather striking that the exhibit includes color photographs of "change" occurring in Melanesia and Polynesia, like a man in "native" dress standing at a fast-food counter. There is otherwise little room in the museum to acknowledge what it means to be, say, Pacific Peoples today. The exhibit is situated, literally, in a passage that leads to the Hall of Pacific Peoples, which I think demonstrates how the architecture of the museum itself can be used to retell the story of the museum and its exhibits.

I think the history of science requires more attention in the American Museum of Natural History, in part because it is part of our cultural history and in part to demystify science as a process not just of discovery, but of revelation that is painstakingly derived, sometimes through reinterpretation.

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